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Regulators move to shut down battery recycling plant

Air quality officials say Exide Technologies in Vernon has failed to control lead and arsenic emissions, leading to health risks.

October 18, 2013|By Kim Christensen and Jessica Garrison
  • The South Coast Air Quality Management District has asked an independent administrative law panel for an order to halt lead smelting operations at Exide's plant in Vernon "until its air pollution control systems are improved and deemed adequate" to control toxic emissions.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District has asked an independent… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Regional air pollution regulators moved Friday to shut down Exide Technologies' troubled battery recycling plant in Vernon, citing public health risks from its repeated emissions of lead and arsenic.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has asked an independent administrative law panel for an order to halt lead smelting operations at the plant "until its air pollution control systems are improved and deemed adequate" to control toxic emissions, the agency said in a news release.

The hearing process should take two to three months and probably will include at least one public meeting with communities that have increasingly clamored for the plant's closing with each new disclosure of toxic emissions in recent months — even as it has faced intense regulatory scrutiny.

"Exide has had recurring operational problems this year and a troubled compliance history over the past several years," Barry Wallerstein, the district's executive officer, said Friday. "These problems have resulted in excess emissions of lead and arsenic — two highly toxic metals — that have imposed a significant health risk to people living or working in the surrounding area."

Exide, one of the world's largest recyclers of lead-acid batteries, said it would "vigorously" contest the air district's petition to the panel, called a hearing board, and any order that disrupted the plant's operations.

"The company will prove to the hearing board that it operates its Vernon plant safely and responsibly, and works diligently to protect the health and safety of both the community and its workforce of 130 people," Exide said in a statement.

If the petition is granted, it would mark the second closing of the plant since the air district found in March that Exide's elevated arsenic emissions had increased the cancer risk for more than 110,000 people in Southeast Los Angeles County.

In April, officials with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which regulates the facility, temporarily suspended its operations, citing the toxic emissions and a degraded wastewater pipe. Exide disputed the allegations and accused regulators of taking "arbitrary and capricious" action under public and political pressure.

In July, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin allowed the plant to resume operations under certain conditions, including bypassing the damaged pipes and conducting arsenic testing.

But Exide's problems have persisted.

In July and September, the air district cited the plant for continuing to operate after extreme heat melted an air pollution control system, and for failing to notify the public of an unplanned shutdown of its lead equipment, officials said.

Twice in September, the district ordered Exide to cut production by 15% when air monitors near the plant showed it had exceeded permissible levels of airborne lead.

"The air pollution control systems on Exide's smelting furnaces rely on the maintenance of negative air pressure in the furnace system to ensure that pollutants don't escape into the environment," the air district said. "Since Exide failed to maintain negative pressure in its furnaces ... it has and continues to violate several [air district] rules."

The district cited Exide on Oct. 8. for violating those rules. On Friday, the agency issued two more notices of violation, one for exceeding the "single-stack" lead emission limit and the other for not curtailing its emissions by the required amounts.

Still, the air district's action came as a surprise in light of a deal state toxic substances regulators reached with Exide less than two weeks ago.

On Oct. 8, the company agreed to spend $7.7 million for a new stormwater system and improvements to reduce arsenic emissions. It will also fund tests for lead and arsenic in the soil and dust in the surrounding neighborhood, as well as voluntary blood tests for hundreds of thousands of people who might have been affected.

In return, the Department of Toxic Substances Control agreed to drop its efforts to temporarily close the plant. But the air district, which regulates the plant's air emissions, was not a party to that agreement. It filed its petition Friday without consulting regulators, who nonetheless pledged to support it.

"We have and will continue to work closely with [the district] to ensure Exide operates safely," toxic substances officials said in a statement. "Should the operation cease, we will ensure that management of hazardous waste will comply with all standards that protect the health of the community."

Exide Chief Executive Robert M. Caruso said the company's nearly $8-million commitment would bring its investment in the plant since 2008 to $18 million. He said the company has test results that would prove the effectiveness of the improvements, and that Exide has been cooperating with regulators.

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